Mark McDermott

A soldier’s story: A mission goes amiss for a South Bay soldier serving in Afghanistan

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Army Pfc. Sean Ambriz

Army Pfc. Sean Ambriz outside an Afghanistan National Police headquarters in the Kunar Province.

September 10 was supposed to be a down day for the Ugly Ducklings.

The self-dubbed ducklings are a three-man Army military police team stationed in the mountains of northeast Afghanistan, part of roughly 50-man platoon whose primary goal upon deployment last May was to train Afghani military police. But by September, the platoon’s second squad – a 17-man unit operating out of small outposts called Forward Operating Bases (FOB) – had already been on nearly 50 missions. As the war intensified, the squad was called on more and more for Quick Reaction Force (QRF) missions – assisting nearby infantry units in need of reinforcements.

Pfc. Sean Ambriz and his team leader, Sgt. Jeremy Kiel, had just returned from a mission and were relaxing and resupplying their “MRAP,” the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle that served as the ducklings’ real home away from home. It was a day to essentially kick back, get caught up on sleep, send emails, make phone calls, and maybe play some video games.

A call came in, however, to take part in a small mission to pick up a broken down truck not far from the base. Ambriz, a 2007 Redondo Union High School graduate, was usually his team’s MRAP driver. But he was also secondarily a medic, and so he came on this mission in that capacity.

“Cool,” he remembers thinking, “an easy little pick-up mission.”

A convoy made up of 30 men in five vehicles – including a wrecker – encountered no troubles getting to the broken down truck. It only took about 45 minutes to get there, get the shot up truck hooked up, and start heading back to base. But then the call came: they were told to remain on standby for a QRF mission. The infantry cavalry scouts they had been attached to – the so-called “Hatchet” platoon – were pinned down by snipers on a nearby mountain. Three men were down. One was dead.

Ambriz, as the medic, would be particularly needed.

So they changed directions and made their way to the combat zone. As they neared the valley, the road was blocked by a “jingle” truck – the colorfully painted and chime-adorned work trucks that are so ubiquitous in Afghanistan that “jingle” truck has entered the military lexicon.

There was a tense moment of silence as the men took in their surroundings. Something didn’t feel right.

“It was facing north, no driver, no one in the vehicle, no one around,” Ambriz said. “So we are like, ‘Okay, we need to hurry up, because Hatchet is taking fire and we are sitting here.’ But we can’t get by because the road is so small.”

Higher up in the valley, someone was watching. Two Taliban, one armed with a machine gun, another with a rocket launcher, were setting their sights. On the other side of the valley, snipers were in position. All hell was about to break lose.

Love and football

Sean Ambriz just wanted to play football.

He’d played Pop Warner ball as a kid and loved it. But when he got to RUHS, he became downright passionate about the sport.

“Football was my life,” he recalled. “Every single day during high school…there was nothing I wanted more than to be out on a football field, throwing the ball around. Football, football, football…it was my whole life.”

He started as a wide receiver and a defensive back as a junior and senior. Coach Gene Simon remembered Ambriz as a player who wasn’t blessed with blazing speed but who more than compensated for it with pure desire. During the summer, players were required to come in for 24 mandatory workouts; Ambriz doubled the requirement and turned himself into a valuable player on the squad.

“He was an interesting kid,” Simon said. “He was kind of quiet kid…but he pushed himself. He was a real example of what you could do if you put your mind to it. He’s got that overachiever’s mindset and gets to working on things and pretty soon he is doing stuff you wouldn’t expect him to do. That is what I remember about him.”

After graduation, he attended El Camino College and played football. But he realized after a semester that college wasn’t what he wanted at that point in his life.

“I was thinking to myself, I just got done with four years of this,” Ambriz said. “I want to take a break. That is when it hit me.”

He’d had always thought about joining the army. His favorite movies were always war movies, such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down.” He’d told people throughout his high school years that he would one day enlist. Nobody had believed him, though – he was a handsome, gentle-natured guy who wrote hip-hop poetry and did some male modeling, hardly the type whom people believed would become a soldier. “Everybody always said, ‘No way, you are too nice of a guy,” he recalled.

On Valentine’s Day, 2008, he enlisted. The recruiter had worked out a deal of sorts – he would join the military police, and the Army would help him pursue another long-term goal. He wanted to become a police officer. And so he shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for 19 weeks of basic training and advanced individual training as an MP. Then he was sent to his first duty station, in Fort Carson, Colorado, where he would work as an MP and receive more training.

The focus of military police training is not on combat. MP’s learn basic law enforcement duties – such as working a road and providing security – as well as how to detain prisoners, guard jails, and extricate criminals from often dangerous locales. They are still, of course, soldiers prepared for war. In Colorado, Ambriz spent long weeks in a mountainous area called Red Devil, learning to live outside, in harsh conditions. But MP’s expectations are that even if they deploy in a war zone, their duties will be primarily as police officers.

Three unexpected, life-altering events happened to Ambriz in the ten months he spent in Colorado.

First, he became a medic. It happened almost by accident. He’d scored well in all the academic portions of his training, and one day his sergeant asked him if he wanted to take EMT training. Ambriz had no idea what he was talking about.

“You’ll get a month away from your command,” the sergeant said.

“Heck yeah,” Ambriz responded. “I’ll do it.”

Pfc. Sean Ambriz puts his medic skills to use, helping an Afghani child.

And so he entered an intensive program that included reading 15 chapters a week and working 12 hours shifts with local paramedics. By the end he was a full-fledged Army medic – even though he was still mainly being prepared as a police officer.

Second, he fell in love. Unlike basic training, in advanced training soldiers have social lives – weekends off, even – and a friend introduced him to a beautiful young woman named Courtney Hamerik. After only a month of dating, they both knew something special was happening. Hamerik, a Colorado Springs resident who’d always avoided dating military guys, found Ambriz irresistible. Ambriz, for his part, had always been a romantic sort. During his high school modeling days, he once posted on a website, “I can truly say that I know what love is. Hopefully, I get that one thing I love back sometime in my life.” This was that one thing, that sometime. Early in 2009, Ambriz gave his girl a promise ring. On Valentine’s Day a month later, she gave him a promise ring. They didn’t set a date, but they knew they wanted to get married.

Shortly thereafter, the third unexpected thing happened. His commander arrived one day and everybody fell silent. Just the look on his face told everybody he had something serious to say. The company had been scheduled for a deployment in August in Iraq. There had been a change in plans: they were to leave in a month for Afghanistan. It was shocking news on a lot of levels. Most of the troops were first-timers and they would have to compact four months of training into one.

“So it was basically we are going over with little equipment and not exactly trained sufficiently,” Ambriz said. “And we don’t have many veterans. We were all kind of nervous. We did a month of training out in the snow, and we got ready to leave.”

He might have been a little daunted, but he was also fully on board.

“I always knew what I wanted to do,” Ambriz said. “Every one of the guys knew what we were getting in to. This wasn’t a draft or someone putting guns to our heads. We volunteered for this. We knew what was going on in the world. So we picked up our bags and went. There is not much to bitch and moan about. We signed up. We raised our hand.”

The mission: up

The gunner was the first to spot the Taliban. Just as he opened fire, bullets rained down on the convoy. They were in an untenable position. The gunner was able to briefly suppress oncoming fire as he zeroed in on the two Taliban gunners up in the draw. The driver of the lead MRAP put his foot on the pedal and blasted through the jingle truck.

“He made the decision to push the truck and because of the turn of the road it goes over the side, into a river,” Ambriz said. “We pushed out of the kill zone.”

Moments later, they arrived near the Hatchet company’s departure point at the foot of the mountain. They were radioed instructions: the downed men were only 200 meters up the mountain. Their instructions were to take eight men up the mountain, traveling light and quick. They took no food or water. Ambriz didn’t take his medical kit. The plan was to get up the mountain and back down as rapidly as possible.

The men also found out who had been killed: 1st Lt. Tyler Parten.  Later, they would find out the circumstances of his death. He’d been shot in the ribs and fell down in an open clearing. A medic had risked his own life, running out in the open to get to Parten, who was still alive at this point. The sniper, rather than take down the medic, shot Parten again, this time in the head, just as the medic approached his fallen lieutenant.

Parten had been an immensely popular figure among his men. He was part of the “Hatchet” platoon infantry cavalry scouts and so was not technically Ambriz’s lieutenant. But since they had worked several missions from the same outpost and Ambriz’s lieutenant was at another base, Parten had in essence served as his lieutenant. Parten, 24, was a West Point grad who’d hoped to join Special Forces. He was a good-natured southern man from a small town in Arkansas who picked a guitar in his down time.

“He loved playing his guitar,” Ambriz said. “I remember him sitting and doing reports with our squad leader, sitting in his room singing, playing guitar, playing his own little music, always writing his own music…I talked to him a few times and he was real cool with me, always joked around. But he was a really ambitious leader who wanted to do something big.”

The eight men started up the mountain. The two wounded men, they were told, where hiding behind a rock; one had been shot in the leg, the other in his mouth. A sergeant who’d served directly under Parten led the group.

“He wanted to get him so bad he was shaking,” Ambriz said. “He wanted to get his guys.”

On the radio, one of the men was trying to get more information about the whereabouts of the casualties. It sounded murky. The only thing that was clear is that they were entering a hornet’s nest.

“Roger,” the soldier with the radio said. “From our location, can we get to them without getting fucked up?”

“Negative,” came the response.

At about 150 meters up, the men started taking sniper fire from the other side of the valley.

“It hit five feet in front of me,” Ambriz said. “I took cover behind a bush. There was nowhere to hide.”

They fled further up, reaching 200 and then 300 feet with no sign of the fallen men. Now they were taking sniper fire from both in front of them and behind. Additionally, fire was coming from a village below – particularly problematic, since the rules of engagement dictated that fire could not be returned at the village because of the risk of civilian casualties. They crossed a cornfield, and were told the fallen men were across another field, higher up.

At this point, something became clear: the casualties were not at 200 meters. They were at 2,000 meters. The near-impossibility of their task began to unfold: they were going to have to scuttle across rough terrain, taking fire from all directions, with no cover, find their men and carry them back down without so much as a stretcher. They had no water, no food, and few medical supplies.

But there was no choice. They kept running, up, into the fire.

Ambriz

Ambriz revisits Redondo Union High School, where he was honored for his service in October. Photo by Ray Vidal

In country

It was apparent from the moment Ambriz stepped onto Afghanistan soil that nothing was going to go as expected.

He’d been in his platoon’s third squad his entire time at Ft. Carson. The 12-man unit was tight. “I got to know all those guys perfect,” Ambriz said.

But because of his medic training, it was decided he was needed in the first squad, which was being sent upcountry, near the Pakistan border. It was a tough blow to take at first, since he was already disoriented enough. This was his first time outside of the U.S., except for a few vacations to Mexico, but at least his former roommate was in the squad.

Two weeks later, Ambriz was again reassigned, this time to the second squad. He didn’t know a soul. He was shipped up north, to the Kunar Province, to a small forward operating base in the heart of the Taliban insurgency. An old adage says that war, for a soldier, is not about political ideals or grand strategies: war is about the guy next to you. Ambriz was about to learn the truth of this, with one addendum: this war, for him, became about the two guys next to him.

The squad was broken up into three-man teams: a driver, a gunner, and a leader. Ambriz felt fortunate, because in a largely inexperienced squad – most of whom had not received anything beyond basic training – his team leader was a tough-eyed kid from Wyoming named Sgt. Kiel who’d already served in Iraq and knew exactly what the hell he was doing.

“He’s definitely been around the block,” Ambriz said. “He’s seen some things. At first, I would question him on the littlest things, because of my nervousness…I’d be driving our MRAP, he’d say go forward, and I’m like, ‘There’s a cliff right in front of us!’ ‘No. Just do it. Just go.’ And it looks like we are about to fall off a cliff but we end up just right. He looks at me and says ‘Don’t question me.’ And we are alive because of the decisions he has made. I don’t question him anymore. He tells me what to do, and roger, I’m on it. I know he is going to get me home alive.”

His gunner, Pfc. Joseph Sherbino, was even less experienced than Ambriz. He was a big kid from Michigan straight out of basic training. But he also remained remarkably unfazed, poker-faced with steady stream of smart-assed commentary regarding their predicaments and the world at-large.

“This guy is willing to help,” Ambriz said. “It just seems he put his life on the line for anyone in a moment’s notice. He never shows fear for anything, never nervous, always the same face, always ready to go forward. With that team – with that team leader, with that kind of gunner – I have the best team I could ask for. How could I be scared?”

They called themselves the Ugly Ducklings, and together, they went on mission after mission – sometimes providing security for convoys, other times driving to even more remote outposts to help train the Afghan National Police. But one activity they didn’t do was typical MP duty – guard duty, or road work. Instead, they found themselves frequently out with infantry troops on Quick Reaction Force missions. Some missions would be a few days, others weeks. Sometimes they’d sleep in their vehicle, or under their vehicle.

The Ducklings learned to trust each other as much as human beings are capable of trust, because everywhere they went, they knew they were surrounded by potential enemies. The Taliban were everywhere.

“We know they are watching us,” Ambriz said. “They are filming us. They just want to see how we do things, like how we run our convoys. I am pretty sure we have talked to Taliban face to face. It’s not like World War I or WWII, when everyone wore uniforms. You don’t know who it is – one time, they could be friendly, and that night they are shooting at you. You just don’t know.”

The mission: down

It took almost two hours to get near the fallen men. But even when they got close – they were parallel, across a field – the distance was perilously far. There was no cover. The enemy knew exactly where they were headed. They were targets.

Kiowa helicopters were called in to strafe the sniper’s positions with 30 millimeter rockets, and a white phosphorous mortar strike was ordered to provide smoke cover.

“As soon as the smoke hit, we just bolted,” Ambriz said.

The men could still hear the popping of bullets as they humped across the field – running on what appeared to be a donkey path – but the shots were unfocused, random. Smoke filled the valley. Ambriz came upon one of the casualties, an Afghan National Army soldier.

“An RPG got him or something because his whole inner calf was completely blown off and his femur bone was just sticking out,” Ambriz said. “I wasn’t sure if it hit an artery but I knew he’d lost a lot of blood.”

He used the standard first aid kit every solider is equipped with and applied so-called “Israeli field dressing” – a special bandage that applies pressure to the wound – as well as a tourniquet. As he finished, the other men brought the lieutenant’s corpse and the other casualty, a sergeant who’d been shot twice – one bullet skimmed his mouth, the other went through his leg. Ambriz worked on his left leg, applying a tourniquet. But the pain was so great the man was having trouble supporting his own weight. He was a large man – 6 ft. 4, 240 pounds, 300 pounds with gear – and as they tried to help him up he kept falling on the ground, writhing in agony.

“Sergeant, you got to get up!” someone shouted. “The smoke is clearing. We’ve got to run.”

Ambriz helped the sergeant and two men carried the corpse. The going was wretchedly slow, and night was beginning to fall. The wounded were calling for water, but not a drop remained among the men. Gunfire was popping everywhere, but the uneven terrain was now becoming an even bigger enemy.

“It was so bad, the terrain, and as it got darker you couldn’t see two feet in front of you,” Ambriz said. “You’d be standing at a cliff and you couldn’t tell if it was five feet down or 100. There were different levels on these hills…It sucked. [The sergeant] fell down, and I’m grabbing the back of his vest, and he’s trying to crawl up as I’m dragging him from behind.”

Kiel, who’d been carrying the lieutenant, switched off with Ambriz. Later, two other soldiers carried the dead man, and Ambriz carried all the excess weapons, four in addition to his own, slung around his neck. The group was spread further apart and could barely see each other. They set their night vision goggles for complete dark, but everybody was growing more disoriented. Dehydration was setting in.

“Maybe halfway down the hill and we were just dead tired, no water…cotton mouth isn’t even the word for it – it got to the point of not wanting to stay awake because of the dehydration,” Ambriz said. “I just wanted to collapse.”

Somewhere else on the mountain, a group of Afghan National Army soldiers were also working their way down. One of them, unfortunately, turned on a white light. Soon the mountainside was lit up with gunfire. Ambriz was suddenly pinned down at a rock wall.

“They were shooting from across the river and you could see the bullets coming in,” he said. “I’m laying on the ground looking up the rock wall and the bullets are whizzing by….Bullets sound different, depending how on how close they are – really, it’s like a snapping sound when they are breaking the sound barrier, and that is when you know it’s right by your head. I was hearing snaps.”

The Taliban then began firing rocket-propelled grenades from the village below. One hit the rocks 30 feet below Ambriz, and the rock structure above him collapsed on him, dislocating his shoulder. Slowly, he continued working his way down, ungainly and in pain, the guns still slung around his neck. At one point, he slumped against another rock wall and took stock of the situation.

Ambriz had a little ritual he did before every mission: he’d kiss Courtney’s promise ring. Now, in the middle of the most miserable day of his life, he pulled off his gloves. He thought about his girl, about the life he’d hoped to live with her, and he kissed the ring. And then he stood back up and continued down the mountain.

Eventually, F-15 jets showed up and dropped laser-guided “JDAM” bombs, scattering the snipers and silencing the grenade-launchers. All the men made it safely down to the road. Ambriz remembers chugging water until he retched. Then he and a friend, Corp. Systo, then lay down in the middle of the road near an MRAP.

“I just collapsed and Systo was next to me, right in the middle of this valley surrounded by Taliban,” Ambriz recalled. “No concerns. He’s like, ‘We don’t care anymore.’ Soon as he said that, we took pot shots right overhead.”

They scrambled into their vehicle, laughing.

“Okay,” Ambriz said. “We care.”

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